The Big Sick was one of my most anticipated movies of the summer, as featured in my Best of the Beast picks a few weeks ago, and I’m happy to say that it mostly delivers. I suspect this is a film that deserves additional watches, and has a high probability of getting better the more time you spend with it. On first viewing, however, I’m left with the feeling that we have three-quarters of a masterpiece, with a closing section that flounders a bit. Still, three-quarters of a masterpiece is nothing to sniff at.
Actor and comic Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) stars as himself in this dramedy that he and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, wrote about their romantic origin story. They meet in the film when Emily, played by Ruby Sparks‘s Zoe Kazan, heckles Kumail during a stand-up set. This leads to an impetuous tumble in the sheets and the intention of never seeing each other again. After all, Emily is focused on school, trying to become a psychologist, and Kumail is constantly being pressured by his parents (Zenobia Shroff and Bollywood legend Anupam Kher) to give in to an arranged marriage with a nice Pakistani woman. But Kumail and Emily’s romance continues. They joke about ending the relationship every time they are together, which just proves they share a sense of humor.
Emily discovers that Kumail has not told his family about her and breaks up with him. Then she gets sick. The hospital says she needs to be put in a medically induced coma so they can help her, and Kumail needs to sign the order. He does and then awkwardly has his first phone conversation with Emily’s parents: telling them he put their daughter in a coma.
Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are magnificent as Emily’s parents. Hunter’s Southern firecracker and Romano’s New York schlub don’t seem like a natural match, but their characters, Beth and Terry, find comfort in their differences. The film doesn’t lean hard on this but, as Kumail hangs out with Emily’s parents and they gradually accept and come to like each other, the older couple’s marriage offers a window to Kumail, showing him how people from wildly different backgrounds can make a relationship work.
Of course, all is not completely well with Beth and Terry. I’m not going to spoil anything, but we meet them at a moment where their marriage is under multiple stressors, not just the medical difficulties with Emily. The complexity of the situation in which these characters are placed at this moment points to one of The Big Sick‘s main strengths: it successfully gives unexpected dimension to almost everyone on screen.
Another example of this would be the frequent conversations between Kumail and his more traditional brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar). These are often light and silly but also feel lived-in and believable.
This believability also carries over to the stand-up comedy aspect of the film. In the past decade, with the rise of comedy podcasts, as well as films and shows like Sleepwalk with Me, Funny People, Take My Wife, and Crashing, more viewers have a pretty good sense of what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian. Maybe The Big Sick doesn’t break new ground in this respect, but it stays smart by being specific and real. Kumail shares a gross bachelor pad with another comic, played with deluded aplomb by Kurt Braunohler. Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant also score quite a few laughs as a few of the folks who frequent the same green rooms as Kumail, offering slightly tweaked versions of their real-life comic personas.
There are two tricky hurdles that the film creates as it goes along.
The first is that this is a romantic comedy where one half of the main couple is comatose for more than half of the film’s running time. It gives Kumail’s character a chance to develop, by spending time with Emily’s parents and really assessing what is important to him, but it gives Emily a very compressed amount of screen time once she wakes up (non-spoiler alert; she did co-write the movie after all) to reconnect with the man she dumped before her coma. It’s a close call, but I would say the film clears this hurdle in a fairly satisfying way, if only because Nanjiani and Kazan’s versions of Kumail and Emily never feel less than fully realized.
The hurdle that the film doesn’t quite clear is the attempt to put satisfying buttons on all of its story lines. In an ideal world, The Big Sick might more resemble a film by producer Judd Apatow’s hero, John Cassavetes. As in a Cassavetes film, The Big Sick is so atypical and steeped in love for its characters that we can’t help but feel like we’re watching moments distilled from real life. But where a Cassavetes film might go off on long character-driven tangents, the plot starts to take precedence over character in The Big Sick‘s final act, and what mostly felt organic starts to feel a little forced. The acting never falters — Anupam Kher, as Kumail’s dad, delivers a particularly touching scene near the end — but one wishes the filmmakers (including director Michael Showalter, building on the offbeat intelligence of his previous film, Hello, My Name Is Doris) had been bold enough to find an ending as unique as the film otherwise is.
The Big Sick opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. It will platform to select cities after that, and open wide on July 14.
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.